Although the traditional image of gypsies involves a head scarf-wearing woman in a darkened tent with a deck of Tarot cards, the truth is that gypsy fortune-tellers used regular playing cards with which to tell fortunes too. Also known as cartomancy, the use of playing cards to reveal the future is still practiced today. But, given the associated messages hidden with a pack of Tarot cards, how can gypsies reasonably expect to tell a fortune with an everyday pack of cards?
The History of Playing Cards
Playing cards are thought to be around 600 years old. It is believed that they originated in China, and their paper currency at that time greatly resembled the depictions on early decks. The tradition of using cards for games slowly spread to Egypt and then North Africa, before being snapped up by Europe. It is thought that the ancient Moors introduced the cards to the Spanish in the 12th Century, where they were known as ‘Naibi’, which meant ‘to foretell.’
However, whether playing cards were originally designed for fortune-telling or for games is still something of a mystery. What is known is that by the 16th Century, the decks were being used for fortune telling and by the 18th Century, they had made their way into daily life. Even the Emperor Napoleon was known to consult the cards on a regular basis.
Because regular cards and playing cards have so many similarities, there are themes running through them both. The first is the use of a Predominant Suite. Where the Tarot has the Cups, Swords, Pentacles and Wands, playing cards are divided into the Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds and Spades and, just as with the Tarot, they are given certain meanings:
Hearts – the concern is an emotional one
Spades – this suggests that the concern is about achieving power, but without embracing the responsibilities that come with it
Diamonds – the concern centres on material gain
Clubs – the querent is seeking achievement or recognition for something
However, these cards can also be used to denote a particular time-period:
Hearts – Autumn
Spades – Winter
Diamonds – Spring
Clubs – Summer
In addition, the cards can be used more specifically than those of the Tarot, to identify the subject of a reading. These cards are known as Significators:
King of Diamonds – a fair or grey-haired man over the age of 40
Queen of Diamonds – a fair or grey-haired woman over the age of 40
King of Hearts – a fair-haired young man
Queen of Hearts – a fair-haired young woman
King of Spades – a dark-haired man over the age of 40
Queen of Spades – a dark-haired woman over the age of 40
King of Clubs – a dark-haired young man
Queen of Clubs – a dark-haired young woman
Furthermore, playing cards can even be used to identify more personal details, such as star-signs:
Hearts – Aries, Leo and Sagittarius
Clubs – Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces
Diamonds – Gemini, Libra and Aquarius
Spades – Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn
Meanings of Other Cards
In a Tarot deck, each of the other cards has a meaning or influence on the analogous story of the Fool’s Journey. Although there is no such story within a deck of playing cards, the cards within each Predominant Suite have their own meanings. For example, we know that cards governed by the Hearts are concerned with emotional issues. Looking through the deck at the cards within this suite, we can see how they might play a part in a reading of this sort:
Ace: this hints at happiness within the home, love and friendship or the start of a romance.
King: this suggests the presence of a good-natured, fair-haired man. However, this person is likely to be led by their heart and could be considered impulsive.
Queen: this card indicates that a fair-haired woman is somehow involved. This woman is trustworthy and may give good advice.
Jack: the Knave represents a fair-haired youth or the presence of a good friend.
Ten: this card suggests that good luck in on the horizon.
Nine: also known as the ‘wish card’, the Nine suggests that a particular dream or goal will be made a reality.
Eight: this indicates the meeting or parting of visitors. The querent may be invited to a party or may be sending out invitations out of their own.
Seven: drawing this card suggests that the querent will encounter an unfaithful or disloyal person; someone who breaks promises.
Six: unexpected good fortune appears in the querent’s life; an opportunity that they would be foolish to pass up.
Five: this card suggests that the querent needs to consider carefully, before making a particular decision – primarily because there are likely to be those around him that are looking to scupper his plans.
Four: the Fours are cards of change. It may be for the good, such as professional promotion, or it may be a negative change.
Three: this card recommends that the querent needs to think before they act or speak or they make cause offence.
Two: this card heralds the arrival of prosperity, generally in terms of friendship. It may be that the querent will get married or that they will go into business with a friend.
In addition to the different meanings, gypsies used different spreads for different readings. Quick readings are generally conducted using the Three Card Spread. In this, the querent selects three cards, which are laid-out, side by side. From left to right, they signify events in the past, present and future, in accordance with meanings attributed to each card.
For more in-depth readings, something like the Nine Card Spread is more appropriate. Nine cards are laid out in three columns of three cards. The top three cards represent the past, the middle three indicate happenings in the present and the bottom row signifies what is yet to take place. There are many further types of spread, some of them focussing on different aspects of the querent’s life or personality.
While the Tarot deck might be the more famous of the two decks, playing cards certainly have their place in the history of cartomancy.